Tortilla Soup/Aztec Soup

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Dec 3 20:41:34 UTC 2007

On Dec 3, 2007, at 8:57 AM, Ron Butters wrote:

> Mr. [Popik] writes, re: OED, "We stink on food!"--because OED does
> not have
> entries for "tortilla soup" or "Aztec soup." My (admittedly somewhat
> sardonic)
> responses were intended to suggest that "tortilla soup" is pretty much
> (lexicographically) a transparent compound needing no dictionary
> entry...

in fact, "tortilla soup", "bean soup", "sweet-potato pie", etc. aren't
fully transparent; their denotations are partly conventionalized by
being associated with particular traditions of food preparation.  the
canonical bean soup, for example, has white beans (specifically; black
bean soup is something else) and ham in it, two things that could not
predicted from the parts of the compound "bean soup".  egg-lemon soup
(avgolemono) is made with a chicken broth and has lemon juice (not
chunks of lemon) in it, etc.

and so on, without end.  we can't expect the OED to have all such food
names in it.  even names that don't seem at all transparent (like "ant
climbs tree" and "Johnny Marzetti") would multiply the size of the
dictionary disastrously.  the best the staff can do is add (a
relatively few) items that seem to have special cultural significance
-- a hard judgment call, i think.  (i see that "croque monsieur" and
"souvlaki" have made the cut.)

having read a newspaper story about how sea otters in pacific waters
are being threatened by toxic algal blooms, i checked the OED this
morning for "domozoic acid", the toxin in question.  i was not at all
surprised to find that it wasn't there.  we can't expect the OED to
have entries for all names of the form "X acid".  "sulphuric
acid" (with that spelling; no entry for "sulfuric") and "hydrochloric
acid", yes, but "domozoic acid", no (unless it starts getting a whole
lot of press).

(the only google hit i got for "domozoic" was a website claiming to
trace the Levitical prohibition against eating shellfish to the
possibility of poisoning by domozoic acid.  i am dubious.)

there's a place for dictionaries of technical names for substances,
and for dictionaries of food names, and so on.  but the OED can't be
the repository of every expression that's out there somewhere in
english and has a denotation that can't be fully predicted from the
meanings of its parts.


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